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Wealthy progressives spending $10 million, even if it means beating other California Democrats


Democrats dominate every part of California political life. But there’s a small group of wealthy Democratic donors — many rooted in the Bay Area — who say that’s not enough. They want more progressives in office.

So the California Donor Table is planning to spend $10 million on 2022 races — nearly twice what it did in 2020 — to help elect progressive candidates to the Legislature and House. They’re focused on electing people of color and aren’t afraid to take on moderate Democrats. They’ve done it before.

It’s a sign of the growing frustration that progressives from California to Washington, D.C., are feeling with middle-of-the-road Democrats on issues ranging from the environment to police reform.

Too many Democrats are all too willing to do the bidding of their corporate donors, said the group’s executive director, Ludovic Blain, instead of helping working-class people and communities of color.

Winning that internal fight in California is key to what happens nationally.

“The country relies on California to ensure that Democrats have a majority in the Senate and in the House,” Blain said on my “It’s All Political” podcast. “But also they rely on us to send progressives amongst the Democrats to lead the fight. And each time we’re let down by a California Democrat, is a sad day, not just for us, but for the country and the world.”

The group’s founders include San Francisco author and activist Steve Phillips and his wife, Susan Sandler, a philanthropist who is heir to the Golden West Financial Corp. fortune, and Oakland’s Quinn Delaney, founder of the social justice Akonadi Foundation, and her husband, Wayne Jordan, a real estate investor.

Both couples are known for being early backers and advocates for Barack Obama and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams before they were widely known. They funded grassroots organizations in Orange County for years before Democrats flipped four House seats there in 2018. Over the past 15 years, they’ve spent $35 million on state and local contests. They intend to focus on the Inland Empire, Orange County and regions of California far from its more left-leaning coastal areas.

“There’s one set of donors who will invest in Barack Obama or Stacey Abrams — after they’re on Oprah,” Blain said. And then there is the Donor Table, whose four-dozen members typically invest in local community and advocacy groups because they know their turf best.

Their main targets are Republicans. But sometimes, they’ve challenged fellow Democrats. In 2016, the group targeted incumbent Assembly member Cheryl Brown, a San Bernardino Democrat, after she voted with other moderate Democrats to curb climate change legislation. Her critics dubbed Brown “Chevron Cheryl,” in part because she received $1 million from the energy company in that campaign.

But Brown was also one of few Black women serving in the Legislature. Challenging her posed a dilemma for some donors. Ultimately, they focused on her voting record.

“She was backed by pretty bad folks who did not have most of the interests of the Inland Empire in mind,” Blain said. “And so community folks there wanted somebody better to represent them. And they found Eloise Gómez Reyes, and we were happy to back the community groups that were backing her.”

Reyes, who is Latina, not only defeated Brown but is now the Assembly majority leader. The San Bernardino Democrat called the decision to invest $10 million in state and House races “a game changer” for new candidates who don’t have access to that kind of funding.

Democratic strategist Katie Merrill, who worked with left-leaning Fight Back California super PAC, applauded the group spending big on California contests. But she hopes that Democrat-on-Democrat challenges don’t turn into a circular firing squad that could damage the party.

“I wish they would use it just in districts where they’re just facing Republicans,” she said, “so it would have the most impact.”

Abortion case affects California: The Supreme Court’s decision to hear a Mississippi abortion case next year could affect battleground House races in California, which could determine whether Democrats hold their narrow majority.

The case, which will decide whether states can enforce a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, is likely to be decided in the middle of the 2022 midterm elections — just like the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh unfolded in the stretch run of the 2018 midterms.

If the court were to roll back abortion rights next year, “the impact will be similar to the implications of the Kavanaugh hearings” in Orange County, where suburban women migrated to Democrats, predicted strategist Merrill.

At least four in 10 voters in four Orange County House districts said they would be less likely to vote for Republicans if Kavanaugh were confirmed to the court, according to a poll commissioned by Fight Back California shortly before Election Day in 2018. Kavanaugh was confirmed; those four GOP candidates lost.

Republicans clawed back two of those seats in 2020. One top California GOP strategist told me that he didn’t expect the court’s decision to hurt the Republican incumbents, all of whom oppose abortion rights.

“The positions of those candidates on abortion is already well-known,” said the operative, who asked not to be identified so he could speak freely about strategy. “If the Democrats want to make that the crux of their campaign, that’s great for us.”

Pundit to candidate? Political junkies may recognize Lahnee Chen from his frequent appearances on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Now Chen, 42, a Mountain View resident who worked in the George W. Bush White House, is strongly considering a run for California state controller. The incumbent, Democrat Controller Betty Yee, will be termed out. Board of Equalization member and former San Francisco supervisor Malia Cohen has already announced she will seek the office.

Chen, whose parents were Taiwanese immigrants, was born in North Carolina and raised in the San Gabriel Valley town of Rowland Heights (Los Angeles County). He has never been elected to office, but has worked on several political campaigns, including as policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. He is currently a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

The controller’s office appeals to him because of its watchdog role. The controller can audit government agencies and show where they are misusing taxpayer dollars, a function that has bipartisan support.

Chen would need that to appeal beyond the GOP base, as no Republican has won statewide office since 2006. One California GOP strategist who is not working with Chen told me “he’s a role model candidate we would all love,” because of his command of the issues.

One challenge he would face is that, unlike Cohen, he wouldn’t have a built-in geographic constituency. Nor would he have established fundraising networks.

“If I decide to do this,” Chen told me, “it will be a campaign that is sufficiently well-capitalized to be competitive in Californa.“ Look for a decision in early July.

Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @joegarofoli





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